Disclaimer: I own nothing; it all belongs to J.K.Rowling. I’m just borrowing the characters to play with for a while. This is for pleasure only, no profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.
The next morning, Harry awoke feeling groggy and disoriented. He blinked several times, trying to clear his head, but he just couldn’t manage to raise it from his pillow. He could hear raised voices coming from downstairs, and he dragged his pillow over his head in an attempt to drown out the noise. It had taken a long time for him finally to fall asleep the night before, and it felt as if he’d only dosed off a few moments ago. Vague recollections of a dream started to come back to him...
He’d been on his Firebolt, racing through some dark tunnels in search of something. He’d felt a desperate panic rising within him that took nearly all his strength to clamp down.
He’d kept hitting dead ends, no matter which way he turned.
Dudley was there, stirring a potion, and he’d locked Harry in his cupboard where Harry soon fell asleep. His hair had kept growing while he slept and eventually grew so long it crept outside the cupboard door.
Ginny had used his hair to find him and had to slay a dragon in order to reach him. He’d climbed behind Ginny on the Firebolt, and the two of them had sped off into the sunset.
“Great,” Harry mumbled into his pillow. “Now I’m dreaming about fairy tales, only I’m the damn Damsel in Distress.” Harry knew he would never tell another living soul about that dream as long as he lived.
His bedroom door banged open, and Ron and Hermione entered -- wide-awake and already dressed. They both looked entirely too upbeat to suit his mood.
“Come on, Harry. Get up; we’re leaving,” Hermione said bossily.
Still feeling groggy, Harry wiped his eyes. “What time is it?”
“Time to go; Ron and I have taken care of everything. I’ve already shrunk our trunks and have them here in my bag. Let’s go,” Hermione said, trying to pull his covers back. “You’ve been anxious to leave forever, and we’ve got loads to do.”
“Hermione, let me get dressed,” Harry said, grabbing his bedcovers and feeling slightly panicked. He was only wearing boxers, after all. What was her hurry, anyway?
“I’ve left your clothes right there,” Hermione said, pointing to a pair of jeans and a T-shirt already laid out for him.
“Thanks, Mum,” he said, smirking.
“Don’t get smart,” Hermione said, frowning.
“We’ll meet you downstairs, mate,” Ron said, dragging a protesting Hermione from the room. He gave her a slight shove to walk in front of him and leaned back to say, “Just think; you’re finally free of this place. Mum will be going spare if we don’t arrive in time for her to feed you this morning. Hermione thinks there must be something going on with the Order, since she hasn’t noticed them keeping watch and no one is here to escort us to the Burrow.”
Harry hadn’t noticed any of the Order keeping watch at Privet Drive, either, but he knew that didn’t mean anything. With Ron and Hermione there to distract him, he hadn’t spent all his free time looking for Order members as he had in the past.
As Harry dressed, he glanced at his nightstand and saw a folded piece of paper that he didn’t remember placing there. He picked it up and read the few words printed on the inside in Aunt Petunia’s small, tidy, script.
16 Hillside Lane
Godre’r-graig, South Wales
Harry swallowed heavily and stuffed the note in his pocket. This was it: a real and tangible address of where his parents had lived -- where he had lived, once upon a time. Why was Aunt Petunia giving this to him now? Was it her way of saying goodbye?
He’d have to think about it later. He stood up and took one long last look around his bedroom on Privet Drive. It felt strange, knowing he’d never see this room again. Not that he wanted to see it, but it felt strange, nonetheless. Although he hadn’t felt like a child in a very long time, this somehow felt as if he were really leaving his childhood behind. He was truly an adult and on his own now.
Smiling slightly, he turned on his heel and followed his friends downstairs.
“We have to put the charm on Dudley,” he said as he came down the last few steps to meet Ron and Hermione, who were standing by the front door.
“It’s already done,” Hermione said briskly.
“You did it already?” Harry asked, furrowing his brow. How long had they been awake?
“Yes,” Ron replied quickly, turning to open the door. Hermione shifted her eyes as Ron pushed Harry and her out the door ahead of him.
Harry stopped walking. “What did you do?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at the two of them.
“Nothing to worry about, mate; we took care of everything,” Ron said, and something about the way he was smiling reminded Harry eerily of the twins.
Harry decided that he really didn’t want to know. One task down -- now it was time to face Ginny. That thought caused a slight shiver to run down his spine. Whether it was a thrill of dread or excitement, he wasn’t certain. Maybe it was a little of both.
As Hermione continued to steer him towards a spot just outside the wards where they would be able to Apparate, he turned to glance back at the house one last time. For a moment, he thought he saw Aunt Petunia’s face in the doorway, watching their departure. When he looked again, the doorway was empty, and he was certain he must have imagined it. If she’d been there at all, she was most likely checking to be certain they left, rather than feeling any sorrow over his departure.
They crossed the street in silence, Hermione nearly bouncing on the balls of her feet in her eagerness. “All right. Harry, hold on to my arm, and we’ll be at the Burrow in no time.”
Harry smiled and averted his eyes. Taking a deep, shuddering breath (refusing to admit that he was nervous to anyone), he grasped Hermione’s arm and felt the uncomfortable constriction in his chest as he was sped forward towards the Burrow...and towards Ginny.
Harry opened his eyes and was met with the sight of the ramshackle home he loved above all others. Although somewhat the worse for wear, it was still there and still offering a bit of normalcy against the rising storm. Harry didn’t think he’d ever been so happy to be anywhere in his life. Despite his apprehension about seeing Ginny, being at the Burrow somehow warmed him from the inside.
Chickens ran haphazardly around the coop, and Harry could see more than a handful of garden gnomes peeking out from behind a variety of lush green bushes, all of which were in full bloom. He inhaled deeply, savoring the aroma of baking scones mixed with the heady scent of summer.
A sudden urge for treacle tart and a warm greeting from Mrs. Weasley filled Harry’s mind. He had to fight to control his instinct to sprint for the front door and hurl himself inside. Gritting his teeth, he stepped in behind Ron and forced himself to walk at the slower pace. He had no idea what he’d say to Ginny when he saw her, but just the thought of seeing her filled him with such hope that nothing else mattered.
In his mind’s eye, he could picture her hair all windblown from a morning fly in the meadow and a spot of flour on her otherwise flawless face from helping her mother bake the scones that Harry was now certain were awaiting their arrival.
He forced down the uncomfortable thought that she might not even want to see him and wouldn’t be anywhere near him when his presence became known. He wasn’t certain which would be worse -- her rejection or her welcoming arms that he’d have to avoid -- but he couldn’t stop his own feet from hurrying to find out.
Ron pulled the door open, and they stepped into the chaos that was the Burrow. There were boxes and stacks of paper everywhere. Robes hung inside clothes bags from hooks on the ceiling, and Harry could make out a line of high-heeled shoes resting on the windowsill. Gaily wrapped packages were piled in every spare bit of space in the room, which admittedly hadn’t been generous to begin with. Voices could be heard shouting from upstairs, as well as in the kitchen.
The sudden vibration from a small explosion in another room knocked Hermione into Harry’s shoulder, and he barely caught the both of them before they tumbled to the floor.
“Bloody hell,” Ron said, craning his neck to see if there was any damage.
Harry set Hermione back on her feet just as Mrs. Weasley began shouting at Fred.
“Welcome home,” Ron said, grinning sheepishly.
A wide, delighted grin spread across Harry’s face. “Can’t think of any place I’d rather be,” he said honestly.
“Come on,” Hermione said, grabbing each of them by the hand. “Let’s see what that was and if your mum needs any help cleaning it up.”
Hermione pulled them into the kitchen, where they found a frazzled-looking Mrs. Weasley using her wand both to cut vegetables and stir several pots, while simultaneously berating the twins for their careless antics.
Bill sat calmly at the table, shuffling through what appeared to be a list of names, while Charlie Weasley sat across from him with a somewhat dazed expression on his face. Sitting next to Charlie was the reason for his dazed look -- Fleur was instructing him on the proper pace to keep as he walked down the aisle.
Harry wasn’t certain if Charlie’s blank look was because of the topic or just Fleur in general. Ron still reacted the same way to the beautiful part-Veela. Hermione stiffened next to him and scowled at both Charlie and Fleur. Hermione had never warmed up to the French girl, and Harry wondered how Ginny was faring with her future sister-in-law. Ginny hadn’t liked Fleur any better than Hermione did.
Harry’s gaze lingered for a moment on Bill’s scarred face. The wounds inflicted by Fenrir Greyback were plainly visible and still looked quite painful. On Bill, though, they somehow gave him a rugged, manly sort of look. While Harry thought his own scar just drew unwanted attention, like the star attraction in a freak show, Bill’s gave the older man an aura of mystery. Bill appeared to be someone in control of the situation, and the scars added a bit of daring to his story.
Hermione had apparently been struck dumb by the lack of order in the kitchen and hung back slightly in the doorway, while Ron simply slipped into his customary seat at the table and tried to remain unnoticed. Harry wasn’t quick enough to follow suit.
“‘Arry!” Fleur shrieked, gracefully moving away from Charlie and towards Harry. She took him in her arms and kissed him on each cheek. “I am zo ‘appy to ‘ave you here.”
Fleur’s shout had alerted the rest of the Weasley family to their arrival, and Harry shifted uncomfortably beneath all the attention.
“Hi, Fleur. Hello, everyone,” he mumbled, feeling the heat rise to his face.
“Oh! You’re all here,” Mrs. Weasley cried, rushing over to crush Ron in her embrace before pulling back to look him over carefully. Finding no apparent cause for concern, she turned around and treated Harry and then Hermione to the same treatment.
“We’re here, and we’re fine, Mum. Nothing to get so worked up about,” Ron grumbled, wiping his face of his mother’s kisses.
Harry pulled away slightly and stood with his back against the wall as Ron greeted the rest of his family. He scanned the room yet again, cursing his traitorous heart for its pathetic hopefulness. How was his resolve ever to hold if he’d trade the world for the mere sight of her at the first chance he got? His breath caught in his throat as Ginny came down the stairs and stopped at the bottom, her eyes taking in the happy welcome.
She looked like an angel as she floated down the stairs, and Harry thought his heart would burst from simply seeing her again. The morning sun streaming in from the kitchen window lit her hair with a fiery brilliance that Harry longed to run his fingers through. Her hair had always been so sinfully soft, and he loved to touch it.
Time lost all meaning, and, for a brief moment, he was back at Hogwarts, and she was still his. He knew he was staring, but he couldn’t seem to drag his eyes away. It took all the force of will he possessed not to cross the room and take her in his arms. Suddenly and for a moment that seemed to last an eternity, nothing and no one else mattered to him.
Her eyes locked on his, and while time stood still their fierce gazes raked over one another as if each were committing every detail to memory to reexamine on lonely nights apart.
Dear God, she’s beautiful.
Gripping the amulet in his pocket fiercely, Harry forced himself to breathe and drag his eyes away. That was exactly why he had to stay away from Ginny. He was powerless against her charm, but there were things that had to be done, and he had to be the one to do them.
If anyone else had noticed his brief lapse of resolve, they didn’t say anything, although he was certain he could feel the heat from Hermione’s stare on the back of his neck.
Ginny entered the room and walked towards Ron, gently nudging him on the shoulder. “Welcome home, Ron. I’m so glad you managed to get here in time to do some of these chores. The family that works together shares in the joy together,” she said in a singsong voice.
“Great,” Ron grumbled, pulling an apple off the table and biting into it.
“Hi, Harry. Hi, Hermione,” Ginny said brightly.
Harry’s heart nearly broke in two. Leave it to Ginny to act as if nothing had changed and there wasn’t this huge wall of tension between them. He was certain she sounded casual to everyone else in the room, but he could hear the strain in her voice...and he knew he was the one who had placed it there.
He tried to open his mouth and return the greeting, but he couldn’t form the words. When did she become such a skilled actress?
“Hello, Ginny,” Hermione said. “Thanks for sending me those books. They were just what I needed, and they really came in handy.”
Harry’s head shot up, his eyes flickering between the two girls. He’d had no idea Hermione had been in contact with Ginny, or that Ginny had been helping. Damn! So much for keeping her out of it.
“How did everything go with the Muggles?” Mrs. Weasley asked. “They didn’t give you any trouble, did they?”
“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” Ron replied with a self-satisfied smirk, “and they’ll be finding little reminders of our stay for years to come.”
Fred and George grinned maniacally. “Ooh, do tell. It sounds like our ickle Ronniekins has been paying attention all along,” Fred said, wiping an imaginary tear from his eye.
“It’s so gratifying to see all our hard work come to its fruition,” George replied, sighing heavily.
“Oh, sit down and finish making those arrangements for the international Portkeys. If the guests have any trouble getting here on the big day, I’m going to hold you both fully responsible,” Mrs. Weasley snapped.
“Never fear, Mother, dear. All the guests will arrive safely and promptly in time to see our dear eldest brother tie the shackle around his leg,” Fred said, batting his eyelashes dramatically.
“What do you mean wiz zis shackle buziness?” Fleur asked, frowning. “You two should be zo lucky to find zomeone willing to zettle down wiz ze likes of you.”
“Exactly!” Mrs. Weasley jumped right in. “That’s exactly what I’ve been telling them for years, Fleur, dear. Maybe they’ll meet some nice friends of yours at the wedding.”
“Ho, ho,” George said, grinning. “We’ll take that as our mission. To meet and talk with each one of Fleur’s single friends who comes to the wedding.”
“Oh, pleaze. My friends are completely out of your league, little men,” Fleur replied dismissively, causing Bill and Charlie to howl with mirth.
“Seriously though, boys. Ron, Harry...did everything go all right at Privet Drive? Harry, did you move all your belongings out?” Mrs. Weasley asked kindly.
“Yeah, we got it all,” Ron answered. “Harry’s seen the last of that place, and good riddance. Those Muggles are mental. He’s just a homeless, orphan waif now, Mum, so I suppose we’ll have to take him in.”
Ron grinned at Harry when he said it, but the sudden realization hit Harry like a punch to the gut.
He was homeless.
Realistically, he knew that he’d always have a spot at the Weasleys’, there for the asking, but the fact remained that he was truly on his own. He really didn’t belong anywhere. Not that he’d ever really belonged at the Dursleys’, either, but at least it was an address. A place to hang his hat, as it were.
As if sensing his sudden unease, Ginny placed her warm hand on Harry’s forearm and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry, Harry,” she whispered. “You’ll always belong here, no matter what else has happened.”
Harry raised his eyes to meet hers and was nearly lost in their depth. How did she know? She’d always been able to see through whatever it was he was feeling and get to the heart of things.
Damn, this will be harder than I’d even anticipated.
He nodded slightly and saw the brief flash of pain in her eyes before she covered it up again. Smiling brightly, she turned her attention to Hermione and began chatting about bridesmaid dresses. Her dismissal allowed Harry to breathe again, but the pit he felt in his stomach would make eating impossible. He felt nauseous and needed to regroup. He hated feeling so wrong-footed and uncertain about everything.
“Of course, I suppose you could always go to Grimmauld Place,” Ron said, oblivious to the startled and aggravated looks he was receiving from the rest of his family. “You do own that now, don’t you, Harry?”
Harry’s insides went cold. He’d forgotten about Grimmauld Place, but it would never be home. “Yeah,” he said, finally finding his voice. “I’m going to go put my trunk up in your room. I’ll take yours up, too.”
He grabbed all the shrunken trunks from Hermione and nearly sprinted from the room. He knew they’d all be talking about him, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t stay there with her so close for one minute longer. He needed to breathe. And he’d thought it was bad at the Dursleys’. Somehow, he suspected that this would be the longest week of his life.
It wasn’t until he’d reached the brightness of Ron’s orange room that he remembered he couldn’t use magic to enlarge the trunks. He left both Ron and Hermione’s miniature trunks on Ron’s bed and sat down on the camp bed with his own. He’d stayed in Fred and George’s old room when he was here last summer, but he suspected that with so many people staying at the Burrow for the wedding, he’d be bunking with Ron. That’s what he’d done last Christmas when they’d had a crowd.
He stretched out on the camp bed and let his thoughts drift to the previous Christmas. Things had been so much simpler then. He grinned as he remembered the sweetheart necklace that Lavender had sent to Ron. He wondered what his friend had done with it. Chucked it out the window of the Gryffindor dormitory, most likely.
He relaxed and allowed his mind to wander as he drifted off to sleep. He really hadn’t slept well the previous night and was feeling quite drained. He wasn’t certain how long he’d dozed, but he awoke to Hermione sitting on his bed, making a “Harumff” sound.
Harry jerked and looked around wildly.
“Sorry, Harry,” Hermione said. “Mrs. Weasley put Ron to work with the twins, but I couldn’t stand listening to them for one more minute. They can be so insufferably condescending sometimes.”
Harry shook his head and tried to clear it. “Yeah,” he mumbled.
“Are you all right?” Hermione asked, glancing at him from the corner of her eye.
“Ginny looks good,” Hermione ventured, letting her sentence hang in the open. Harry refused to respond.
Hermione huffed but continued prodding. “Fleur is driving her crazy with these wedding plans. Ginny says she’s done nothing but attend engagements and make plans for this wedding and will be just as happy when it’s over and done. She hates the dress robes she has to wear. Says they’re made for a ten-year-old. I’m supposed to help her with them tonight.”
Harry fought the smile that threatened to crack his impassive expression. He could just imagine Ginny’s tirades against wearing anything that would make her look younger than she was. She hated being treated like a child.
“Why are you telling me this, Hermione?” he asked.
Hermione shrugged. “I thought you’d want to know, since you avoided talking with her at all.”
Harry frowned. “I-I- I didn’t avoid talking...I just --”
“I just didn’t know what to say,” Harry whispered.
Hermione smiled sadly. “She misses you, Harry, and I know you miss her. No matter how well you think you’re hiding it.”
Harry swallowed against the thickness in his throat. “It’s even harder than I thought it would be.”
“Harry, if Professor Dumbledore said this great power you possess is love, do you really think it’s a good idea to be pushing her away?” Hermione asked, picking at a loose thread on the blanket on Harry’s bed.
Harry stiffened, closing off his emotions. “It has to be this way, Hermione. I won’t put her in danger.”
“She’s already in danger, Harry. We all are. Didn’t you see the hands on that clock downstairs? Ginny’s hand is still pointed to Mortal Peril, whether you’re with her or not. I think she could help us.”
“Harry -- ”
“Don’t push it, Hermione. I can’t let her die because of me, and I don’t want her to have to watch if it’s me that’s going to go,” Harry said, refusing too look at her.
“Don’t say that,” Hermione hissed, grabbing him around the waist and hugging him fiercely. “Don’t even think it. We can’t lose you, Harry.”
“Don’t be stupid, Hermione,” Harry said, finally looking at her directly. “We both know it’s a very real possibility. Look at what happened to Dumbledore’s hand while he was after these things. This isn’t a game, and I’m not nearly the wizard he was. It’s more than likely I’m going to die, but so help me God, I’m taking him with me when I do.”
“Don’t!” Hermione pleaded, her voice choked.
“Hermione,” Harry said gently, hating the tears that were streaming down her cheeks. He never did well with crying girls. “Let’s just take this one step at a time. It’s the only way I’m able to keep going forward. Ginny is a distraction -- a very pleasant distraction -- that I can’t afford.”
“Then you at least enjoy yourself at this wedding. Dance with her, drink and be merry and have a good snog if that’s what you want to do,” Hermione said, crossing her arms across her chest.
“I can’t believe you, of all people, just said that,” Harry replied, unable to contain his laughter.
She shrugged. “If you don’t, you’ll have no right to complain if someone else does.”
“What does that mean?” Harry asked warily. The beast within his chest that had curled up in misery at the end of term suddenly raised its head and breathed fire.
“Well, Ginny told me that the two groomsmen are Charlie and Fleur’s cousin, Jean-Luc. Fleur has been making no secret of the fact that she wants to pair Ginny up with Jean-Luc,” Hermione said, her nose slightly in the air.
“What? What does Ginny think about this?” Harry asked indignantly. His monster was snarling. No prancing Frenchman was getting anywhere near his Ginny without her permission.
Unless...Harry’s insides suddenly went cold. What if Ginny wanted the attention? He felt the beast whimper and curl its tail inward.
“Oh, Harry. You know Ginny. She won’t be pushed into doing anything she doesn’t want to do, especially by Fleur. But she’s hurting, too, and...well...Ginny has been known to be spiteful on occasion,” Hermione said, somewhat apologetically.
Harry’s heart constricted so tightly that he thought he might asphyxiate himself. He clenched his fists, knowing there was nothing he could do. He’d brought this on himself, and if he thought a girl like Ginny wouldn’t have a string of other suitors waiting in line, then he was being foolish. He felt as if all the air had been let out of his wings.
Harry shut his eyes, his head slumping forward.
“It gets worse,” Hermione said, shifting as she made herself more comfortable.
He opened his eyes wearily. “How could it possibly get any worse, Hermione? Unless you’re about to tell me there is some wizarding custom that all the attendants in a bridal party have to snog each other in front of witnesses, as well.”
Hermione sniggered. “Actually, this concerns you. Ginny said that Fleur plans on having you entertain Gabrielle during the reception.”
Harry blinked several times, nonplussed. “Huh?”
“You know, her little sister?”
“I know who she is, Hermione, but isn’t she around ten?” Harry asked.
“Eleven, actually. I wonder if she’ll be starting at Beauxbatons in September. I read that other wizarding schools --”
“What? Oh...right, Gabrielle.”
“Eleven. Do I really come off as being that desperate?” Harry asked, cringing.
Hermione giggled. “Of course not, Harry, but evidently Gabrielle has had a major crush on you since the Second Task. Fleur wants to make her dream come true by having you be her dance partner.”
“Great. I don’t suppose it occurred to her to ask me how I felt about this?” Harry asked, feeling nettled
“You know how it is with Fleur. How other people feel about anything has never been one of her top priorities,” Hermione said, sniffling slightly.
Harry rubbed his forehead roughly. He could feel a headache beginning in his temples. “Well, she can forget it. I’m not jumping because Fleur says jump.”
Hermione snorted. “Oh, ho. Now you sound just like Ginny. Besides, Harry, you can get as angry as you want. We all know you’ll never hurt that little girl’s feelings. So, if you really don’t want to spend the evening as her escort, I suggest you get it straightened out with Fleur straightaway.”
“Oh, I can see that conversation. I know it’s your wedding day and all, but I really don’t want to child-mind your sister, so please make other arrangements. As if I’m not already high on the list of cads to the Weasleys, anyway,” Harry said, rolling his eyes dramatically.
“No one thinks you’re a cad, Harry. Although Fred and George do find the idea of you being Gabrielle’s date highly amusing,” Hermione replied, sniggering.
“I’ll just bet they do. Did Ginny have any other little bombshells to drop, or is that enough for one day?” Harry asked, in a right foul mood now.
“Other than her complete misery of being apart from you, you mean?” Hermione asked, blinking innocently.
“Hermione,” Harry said, irritated.
“Okay, okay. She did say she thinks there is something dodgy going on at Grimmauld Place. Her mum has been very secretive about it, of course, but the Order seems to have come into a lot of information recently. She’s heard fragments of several conversations about a guest staying there.”
“A guest at Grimmauld Place? Who do you suppose it could be?” Harry asked, leaning forward with interest.
“I don’t know, Harry. Why don’t you ask? It is your house, after all,” Hermione said, frowning slightly.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s my house. If I want to know who is staying there, they should tell me. I have every right to know,” Harry said, warming to the idea
“Of course you do, but since when has that ever stopped them?”
Harry set his mouth grimly. “Well, that all changes now.”
“I know you don’t want to tell the Order about the Horcruxes, Harry, but don’t alienate them, either. There might come a time when we need their help. You know you can trust Remus and Professor McGonagall and all the Weasleys, at least,” Hermione said.
Harry knew that Hermione’s first instinct was always to go to someone in a position of authority, but Harry felt that if Dumbledore hadn’t told the Order about the Horcruxes then there must have been a reason. He wasn’t about to second-guess that decision.
“I’ll work with the Order, but I’m not telling them anything about our mission. They had no problem stringing me along for the past few years; let’s see how they enjoy having the shoe on the other foot.”
Hermione frowned and bit the corner of her lip but didn’t argue with him for once.
“Don’t worry, Hermione. If Dumbledore didn’t tell them, he must have had a good reason.”
This seemed to make Hermione feel better about the situation. “Let’s go downstairs and see about dinner. Ron should be done with his work by now and will be wondering where we’ve gone.
“You go on down. I’m going to take a shower, and I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”
“Harry -- “
“I just need a few minutes to steady myself before seeing her, all right, Hermione?” he said, looking at his feet.
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” Hermione said quietly.
“I do, too. Believe me; I do, too.”
When Harry came downstairs a good while later, he headed straight for the kitchen, certain he’d find a crowd of Weasleys there. What he hadn’t anticipated was hearing the low murmur of voices coming from the sitting room as he walked past. The sound of his own name caught his attention, and he stopped to hear what was being said.
He had to squint against the dimness of the room, but he could just make out Ron and Hermione sitting on the couch at the far end of the room and speaking in hushed tones. Ron had his arm draped casually over the back of the couch, and Hermione was nestled in the crook. They were stuffing little gift boxes with chocolates -- for the wedding, Harry assumed -- but it looked as if they were eating more than they were packaging. Harry had to grin, watching them.
“So, he’s upset, and she’s upset. How is that different from anyone else in this bloody house? Someone is always upset,” Ron said, scowling moodily.
“It’s more than being upset, Ron. They’re both miserable, and I don’t know what to do about it,” Hermione replied, gently swiping a bit of chocolate from Ron’s mouth with her finger.
“Maybe it isn’t up to you to do something,” Ron said, his voice strained.
“I know you think he’s right to keep her out of it, Ron...but what if he’s wrong?” Hermione said, resting her head on the back of the couch.
“What do you mean? How is trying to keep her safe wrong?” Ron asked, perplexed.
“Because she’s not safe, no matter what he does. And he might be the one who’s in more danger without her. You saw how happy he was when they were together. How long has it been since you’ve seen Harry that way? Even his marks improved.”
Ron shrugged. “Not everything is about marks, Hermione.”
“I didn’t say it was,” she snapped, sounding a little hurt. “Ron, don’t you see what’s going on?”
“Harry’s had a tough life, and not many things have truly gone right for him. Ginny is just about the best thing that ever happened to him. She made him happy, and he’s willing to give her and all that up in order to rid the world of Voldemort so all the rest of us can be safe.
“Ginny has loved Harry since before she even knew what love was. She stood on the sidelines and watched him struggle, even moving on herself rather than forcing her feelings on him. When they finally came together and acknowledged their feelings for each other, it was like every dream Ginny ever had coming true. Now, she’s willingly giving him and all her dreams up, because she knows the rest of our lives depend on his success, and he’d never be able to live with himself if he didn’t try.
“Don’t you see? They are so alike it’s painful. It’s like that Christmas story,” Hermione cried.
Ron wore a stunned expression. “What?”
“You know, that old Christmas story about the man who wanted to buy a present for his wife, and he sold the only thing of value he owned -- his father’s pocket watch -- to buy her a hair clip for her long beautiful hair. Meanwhile, the wife cut her hair and sold it in order to earn enough money to buy a gold chain for the man’s watch.
“It’s beautiful and so romantic in a bittersweet sort of way,” Hermione said, smiling sadly.
“You mean they both ended up with a present they couldn’t use?” Ron asked, horrified.
“Oh, Ron. That’s not the point,” Hermione snapped. “They ended up with each other.”
Harry pulled back sharply and blindly stumbled for the kitchen. He sat down on a stool, breathing heavily. Was that what he and Ginny were doing? Each one sacrificing what was most important to them for the greater good? And would both of them end up with nothing in the end?
He had never wanted to make Ginny suffer. He put his head down and ran his fingers through his hair.
I don’t know.
He’d never considered it as any sort of noble act; he just wanted to keep her safe. Harry was beginning to think there was no way to do that.
He looked up to find Mrs. Weasley standing in the doorway. She was looking at him with concern over finding him sitting alone in the dark.
“Are you all right, dear?” she asked kindly.
“Yes, Mrs. Weasley. I’m fine.”
“Well, I suppose you’d say that even if you weren’t fine.”
Harry grinned sheepishly. “Guilty as charged.”
Mrs. Weasley poured a glass of cold pumpkin juice and placed in front of him. She sat down in the seat next to him and took his hand in her own. “The one thing in this world that always seems to be in short supply is love, yet it’s the one thing that grows and multiplies the most when shared. We should never throw away a chance to have more of it in our lives. “
Harry looked up into Mrs. Weasley’s eyes and found only warmth and compassion there. He felt his own eyes fill and blinked furiously in order to hold back the tears that suddenly wanted to fall. “I’m just trying to do what’s right, Mrs. Weasley.”
“I know you are, dear,” she said gently, rising up from the table and kissing him on the head. “She knows it, too.”
Harry nodded silently as Mrs. Weasley pushed a piece of warm bread into his hands. “That should hold you until dinner. We’ll be eating out in the garden tonight. There will be more room out there. Be a love and go ahead and start setting the table for me, would you, dear?”
As soon as he went outside, Harry knew he’d been set up. Ginny was already there, placing napkins next to each of the plates. Harry gathered the silverware and began helping her to set the table.
“Let me guess -- Mum sent you out here?” she asked without raising her eyes from the table. The low, husky quality in her voice sent a shiver up his spine.
“Yeah,” he replied.
They worked in silence for a few moments, working in tandem to set each place setting. Finally, Harry couldn’t take the strained silence anymore. “It’s good to see you, Ginny.”
“Is it?” Ginny asked dully.
Harry swallowed. “You have no idea.”
“Why did you allow Ron and Hermione to go with you? They’re going with you again, aren’t they? When you go off to do the thing you’re going to do,” Ginny said, turning to face him and placing her hands on her hips.
“You said you had things to do alone now. Ron and Hermione being with you isn’t actually alone.”
“No. They never listen to me.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have listened, either,” Ginny said, her eyes glistening brightly.
“No. I shouldn’t have said that. I know you’re only doing what you have to do, and I know it isn’t any easier on you. That doesn’t always help,” she said, her shoulders slumping.
“I know,” he replied, his heart aching. She was absolutely right, but he had no idea what he could say to make it better for her, aside from the one thing she wanted to hear. And that was the one thing he couldn’t -- shouldn’t -- do.
“So, what happens now? With us, I mean. Do we just go on and pretend nothing has ever changed?” Ginny asked.
“I dunno. Can you do that? ‘Cause I really don’t think I can,” Harry said honestly.
Ginny shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll do what I have to do.”
“You always do,” he said, trying to smile.
“Yeah. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.”
Harry snorted. “No. It does that.”
They were interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the Weasley clan, along with Fleur, Hermione, and Ekaterina, Charlie’s Romanian girlfriend. She had long, straight dark hair that hung well below her waist and dark eyes that appeared to study them all intently. She was as opposite to Fleur in coloring as she could be, yet equally beautiful.
“You are Harry Potter,” she said in a thick accent, reaching out to shake his hand.
“Yes, I am,” Harry said, lowering his eyes.
“I am honored to meet you. I have heard stories of you since I was a little girl,” she said.
Harry felt his face burn, and he longed to be anywhere else. He noticed Ginny biting the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
“Come on, Katia. You’re embarrassing the kid. Leave him alone,” Charlie said, chuckling and tugging on his girlfriend’s hand.
Ginny giggled. “You’ve never got used to that, have you?”
Harry shrugged. “I wish just once someone would say, ‘Hullo, Harry. Nice to meet you,’ and leave it at that.”
Ginny grinned and stuck out her hand. “Hullo, Harry. Nice to meet you.”
“Oh, ‘Arry. ‘E iz still zo ‘umble,” Fleur said, increasing Harry’s embarrassment. “‘Ee weel ‘ave all ze girls lining up to dance wiz ‘im at ze reception.”
“As long as he saves one for me,” Ginny said, and Harry could hear the hard edge in her voice. She was challenging him.
“I can do that,” he said, locking his eyes on hers and raising an eyebrow.
“But, Ginny. Don’t go promising all your dances before ze wedding. Jean-Luc is zo anxious to meet you. You may find yourself wishing you had a free dance card,” Fleur said, waggling her finely arched eyebrows.
“I think I can manage my own dance partners, thank you, Fleur,” Ginny said through gritted teeth.
“But of course you can,” Fleur replied, waving her hand dismissively. “I just zink you will be pleazed when you meet ‘im.”
“I’m certain I’ll be happy to meet all your family, Fleur,” Ginny said sweetly.
Harry had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from bursting into laughter. She sounded so sincere, yet he could hear the snide quality in her voice. His inner monster was dancing an intricate waltz with the knowledge that she wasn’t going to let herself be set up with Jean-Luc. Harry hated his name just on principle.
Of course, that same monster had been snarling in fury just moments ago when Fleur had been attempting to play matchmaker for his Ginny.
He had to stop thinking like that. She wasn’t his Ginny anymore.
“Fleur, my love, you have to stop worrying about everyone else’s dance partners,” Bill said, wrapping his arms around Fleur’s waist and nuzzling her neck. “You only have to think about sharing all your dances with me.”
Fleur’s eyes softened as she turned to rub her nose against Bill’s. Harry turned away in embarrassment and walked towards the other end of the table.
“They’re sicky sweet, aren’t they? I hope they cool off after they’ve had a honeymoon,” Ginny said, wrinkling her nose. “Maybe regular shagging will help.”
“What? Come on, Harry. They’ve been living here with Mum, who has impropriety detectors hooked up in every room. All that sexual tension has to be released somewhere,” Ginny said.
Harry didn’t know if she was joking or not, and he stared at her uncertainly. “Er.”
“Oh, I’ll be so happy when this wedding is finally over,” she exclaimed.
He didn’t know what possessed him, but he couldn’t stop the words from coming out. “Yeah, and maybe you and Jean-Luc will hit it off splendidly and dance the night away. You’d better keep your mum’s detectors in mind then.”
He knew he was in trouble before the words had even finished leaving his mouth.
“Don’t worry, I know my way around them,” Ginny said, her voice rising angrily. “What’s it to you, anyway? The idea is to not let anyone know there was ever anything between us, right? Maybe kicking up my heels with a handsome Frenchman is a good way to get that rumor moving.”
“Wouldn’t know. Why don’t you try it?” Harry replied, his own anger mounting.
“Maybe I will,” Ginny snapped, her eyes suspiciously bright.
Harry turned on his heel and stomped away from the table. He knew his and Ginny’s raised voices had attracted the attention of several of the others, but he didn’t really care at the moment. He stopped at the front of the Burrow and took several deep breaths. None of the Dursleys had managed to get this much of a rise out of him in the entire fortnight he’d spent there. How did she manage to do it three times in the space of a few short hours?
Damn, she can get under my skin.
Harry noticed a fat little garden gnome munching on one of Mrs. Weasley’s prize rose bushes right out in the open without even making an attempt at concealment. With his Seeker reflexes, Harry’s hand shot out and grabbed the little gnome around its middle. Winding up and releasing some of his anger and frustration as he did, Harry flung the creature and watched as it sailed over the fence, screaming all the way.
That felt good.
Harry began searching for gnomes in earnest and releasing some of his pent up frustration by cleaning them out of the garden. He wasn’t certain how long he’d been there -- long enough to work up quite a sweat -- when Ron joined him. His ears were a deep magenta, and he was a scowling fiercely.
Harry silently handed him a struggling gnome. Ron looked at the ugly little creature for a moment without saying a word, then, with a snarl, he tossed it well past the garden gate.
“Nice one,” Harry said appreciatively.
They tossed a few more gnomes in silence before Harry finally asked. “What set you off?”
“Have you seen the guest list for this wedding?” Ron asked, tossing another gnome.
“Er, yeah, Ron. It was the first thing I did when I got here,” Harry said sarcastically. “How was I supposed to have seen the guest list? Why? What’s wrong with the guest list?”
“Turns out you and Fleur aren’t the only former Tri-wizard champions who will be attending,” Ron said, viciously swinging a gnome in the air.
“Victor Krum, Harry. Vicky was invited, and he responded that of course he’d be here and looked forward to catching up with old friends. I’ll just bet I know who he’s really looking forward to catching,” Ron spat.
“Ron. Fleur and Victor competed together in a grueling competition. We bonded in a weird sort of way. It only makes sense that we’d all be here together when one gets married,” Harry said, not quite believing he was actually saying it.
“Cedric won’t be here,” Ron said testily.
“Sorry,” Ron said quickly. “It’s not your fault. It just hacks me off.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“You’re one to talk. I saw you go storming out of the back garden. Ginny looked like she was about to cry,” Ron said, crossing his arms across his chest.
Harry flinched again. If he’d felt bad before, he felt ruddy awful now. Maybe letting Ron and his brothers clobber him would help.
“Don’t worry. She’ll be all right; Mum will see to it. A few of my brothers might be ready to hex you, though, so I’d watch your back,” Ron said.
Harry looked at Ron with some apprehension. He raised an eyebrow but didn’t voice the question.
“No, I’m not angry with you. You’re just as upset as she is; you just hide it better. Hermione told me,” Ron said, smirking.
“Remind me to tell Hermione I owe her one,” Harry said, tossing another gnome.
“You’ll work it out. Both you and Ginny are more resilient than most people are. You’re more resilient than me, anyway. Hermione told me that, too. It’ll all work out in the end, though; I’m certain of it. Maybe we can hex Vicky and Jean-Lucifer into fancying each other,” Ron said, only half-joking.
“Maybe Jean-Lucifer is just what Ginny needs,” Harry said despondently, unable to resist using Ron’s nickname.
“Don’t be stupid. What Ginny needs is you, same as you need her. I know my little sister, Harry. She didn’t spend how many years waiting for you only to give up now that you’re finally paying attention. Ginny’s way more tenacious than that,” Ron said, shaking his head.
Harry smiled, feeling a little better.
“What’s going on between you and Hermione, Ron? Are you together or not?” Harry asked, not entirely certain he wanted to know. Still, Ron had made him feel better; he should at least try to do the same.
Ron was quiet for a few minutes. “I think so. I mean...we never actually said anything, but...after Dumbledore’s funeral...it just all sort of clicked, you know? We didn’t have to say anything.”
“Er, Ron. I think maybe you do have to say something. This is Hermione we’re talking about. She likes words,” Harry said, grimacing.
“You think?” Ron asked, looking dumbfounded.
“Yeah, I do,” Harry replied confidently.
Harry snorted. “After all this time, you’d think we would have figured out what we’re doing.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Ron asked, handing Harry another gnome.
A/N: Okay, so there’s Ginny. What did you all think of their reunion? I had two reviewers who hoped it would be drawn out, but the rest of you seemed to want her right in the first chapter, lol. I hope JKR knows how much Ginny is loved.
I’d like to thank my beta, Mistral, very much for fitting this in despite some RL issues. I really appreciate you’re taking the time to fix it up -- it always looks so much better when you’re through with it. I know I can be a challenge since I’m so comma-impaired. :D
I’d also like to say a special thanks to my second pre-beta, Dianne, who shares my love of angst. I call her my angst-meter because I always know whether I’ve hit or not depending on the reaction she give me. She’s the best motivator I have since I always start on the next chapter immediately after I receive her comments. Thanks, Dianne.